sparky

by Gareth Branwyn

"A human being is a robot's way of making another robot."
—B.E.A.M. robotics maxim

Have you noticed that robots are shrinking? From the talking trashcans-with-legs of 1950s and 1960s sci-fi, to the sleek humanoids of more recent robot fantasies, to the current research being done in planetary rovers, the teleological bias is towards reduction. While this reflects the miniaturization trend seen in most technology, it's also part of a critical shift in thinking about robots. Just as the fields of artificial intelligence and artificial life have moved from rules-based and top-down models of constructing digital life, roboticists are starting from the ground up (literally), looking to biology and the animal kingdom for design inspiration. Out on the fringes of this new domain of robotics lives Mark Tilden and his B.E.A.M. robotics cohorts.

  • Devices must move, eat, and survive by themselves.
  • Innovative cheating is allowed (even encouraged).

    - Basic B.E.A.M. rules

    Most times you ask, "B.E.A.M." stands for "Biology, Electronics, Aesthetics, Mechanics" (but other times "Building, Evolution, Anarchy, Modularity" or "Biotech, Ethnology, Analogy, Morphology," depending on which B.E.A.M. gearhead you ask and what mood they're in). This biologically-inspired branch of robotics research was created by engineer Tilden as a way of allowing robot enthusiasts of all ages and levels of expertise to experiment with "robot evolution."

    So what is a B.E.A.M. robot?

  • The human builder is the designer.
  • The mechanical robot is the competitor.

    - From B.E.A.M. Robotics 4 Rules and Guidelines

    B.E.A.M. robotics center around a series of international games where robot competitors participate in events designed to test their robots' performance and survivability. Fourteen main events include Solaroller (solar powered robot drag racing), Photovore (robots interacting in a closed environment), Legged Race (insect-like robots face off on rough terrain), Robot Sumo (Rock 'em Sock 'em robots in a ring), and Micromouse (robots follow a maze ). Although the robots and their builders compete for gold, silver, and bronze awards, the games are really an excuse to get B.E.A.M. enthusiasts together in a supportive environment to swap designs, have fun, and push the envelope through competition.

    The first thing you marvel at when you see most B.E.A.M. bots up close is how incredibly small they are. So small, in fact, that it's a common practice to photograph them next to a coin to show their relative size. The next thing you notice is how God-awfully slow these mechanical creatures are. One of the goals of B.E.A.M. is to build autonomous robots; to this end, tiny solar cells are used instead of batteries. The robot sits idle while it "eats" enough light to power it forward. Once the bot's capacitor has stored up enough energy, it metabolizes the light and lurches forward. The bots move so slowly that the maze-following Micromouse competition takes days to complete. Looking at one of the enclosed robot environments (called a "Robot Jurassic Park") through time-lapsed video, you can see the slow-mo techno-Darwinian world of B.E.A.M. coming to life. Here bots climb over obstacles, travel in search of food (light sources), and duke it out for dominance. What's amazing is that all this lifelike behavior is accomplished by using what Tilden calls a "nervous net" (as opposed to a neural net). Where most robots, even other miniatures, use sophisticated (and expensive) microcontrollers to coordinate behaviors, B.E.A.M. bots use only a minimal network of transistors, capacitors, and other basic electronic components. In fact, most B.E.A.M. bots are constructed out of recycled junk. Sony Walkmans, solar-powered calculators, pager motors, piano wire, springs, and plastic tubing are some of the components commonly found in the robots. By tweaking these nervous nets, powered by solar cells, B.E.A.M. roboticists are able to coax surprisingly sophisticated behaviors from their creations.

    The Future of BEAM

    At this point I can hear the spoilsports in the crowd asking, "But what can these little critters do?" Well, so far, not much. B.E.A.M. development is a hobby, not a full-time job; it's as much a game as a science. B.E.A.M. development moves in fits and starts—like the bots themselves—with the Robot Games as the annual voltaic discharge. New walking mechanisms, touch and vision systems, and encrusted robots with photodiode scales are some recent innovations. Eventually, the B.E.A.M. roboticists hope to see all sorts of tiny robotic creatures lurking in the shadows of our lives, performing menial and repetitive tasks with hive-like efficiency. Swarms of B.E.A.M. bots could cut grass, vacuum your home and workplace (picture a colony of dung beetles wrangling dust bunnies), scrub out toxic chemical tanks, hunt down insect pests, re-seed the rain forest, and terrify the cats, dogs, and kids in your neighborhood. The possibilities are endless.

    B.E.A.M. Robots Need You!

    For these insectoids to have a chance of taking over the world, they need your help. Unfortunately, their current human assemblers are too busy in the robot nursery to hold the hands of any new converts. There are no B.E.A.M. kits (yet) and few plans. But then, the B.E.A.M. makers don't want you doing what's already been done. One of the key ideas in B.E.A.M. is to innovate, innovate, innovate. Mark Tilden does publish a set of rules and guidelines for would-be competitors and an amateur videotape has been produced that provides lots of cool ideas and B.E.A.M. game footage (albeit on a very poor quality recording with a semi-intelligible soundtrack). Another B.E.A.M. evangelist, Dave Hrynkiw, has a company called Solarbotics. He sells solar engines, motors, capacitors, and other materials to start building your own BEAM bots. Dave plans to release several basic kits in the near future. The B.E.A.M. rule book and videotape are also available from Solarbotics. Check out their website for lots of images of existing B.E.A.M. bots, then gather up your technotrash, whip out your soldering iron, and get to work! Your tiny insectoid overlords will not be kept waiting!   </end>

  • See a picked-apart robot!

    Robot photos provided by Dave Hrynkiw.
    Title illustration by Jorja.
    Up Talk!